Decision on Southeast Side metal shredder permit expected this week

City health officials said Tuesday night they plan to release a report that outlines the environmental, health and quality of life impacts of adding another source of pollution to an industrial area.

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A car and metal-shredding operation proposed for East 116th Street along the Calumet River is awaiting a city permit.

A car and metal-shredding operation proposed for East 116th Street along the Calumet River is awaiting a city permit.

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The fate of a proposed Southeast Side metal shredder is expected to be decided by the end of this week when city health officials release a report that outlines the environmental, health and quality of life impacts of adding another source of pollution to a community that already suffers from poor air quality.

An online presentation Tuesday night by a city health official and a city-hired consultant ran through a check list of positives and negatives of allowing the relocated and rebuilt business formerly known as General Iron to open at East 116th Street along the Calumet River. Among the positives: recycling junked metals and more than 100 jobs. Negatives included additional air pollution and “potential explosions,” officials said.

The facility, which is built but sitting idle waiting for a final city operating permit, has been a highly contentious issue between residents and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who last year agreed to conduct a community health impact assessment at the request of President Joe Biden’s top environmental official.

Megan Cunningham, managing deputy commissioner of the city’s public health department, suggested that tougher rules by the city could be put in place to reduce the added pollution if the scrap metal operation is allowed to operate. The business potentially adds to soil and water pollution and poses risks for fires and explosions, she said.

Consultant Jeff Harrington of the engineering firm Tetra Tech said his modeling analysis concluded that there would not be an increased cancer risk in the area, though Cunningham noted that the nearby communities of East Side, Hegewisch and South Deering all have high rates of cancer compared with the city as a whole.

Cunningham didn’t tip her hand as to which way the city was leaning on the permit but did say that health officials were considering the totality of polluting industries nearby.

“We are looking cumulatively at the burdens that the Southeast Side neighborhoods of Hegewisch, East Side and South Deering face today as an area of significant industrial development,” Cunningham said.

In an interview, one community organizer said she didn’t see evidence Tuesday night that the city was actually following through on the process of measuring the cumulative burden.

“I was hoping to see more information or signals to show us they are considering the pollution that is already in the neighborhood,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Community groups have said the health of Southeast Side residents would be harmed if the scrap-metal operation is allowed to open because there are already many sources of air pollution in the area.

Tetra Tech was hired by the city as Lightfoot’s administration considers giving an operating permit to Southside Recycling, the new name for General Iron.

The business’ owner has been in negotiations with the city for several years to open.

Many believed the city was moving toward approving the operation until the Biden administration intervened last May to ask the mayor to study the health effects of putting another source of pollution in one of the worst areas of the city for air quality.

Separately, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development has been engaged in an almost year and a half investigation into the city’s role in moving a source of nuisance and pollution from affluent, white Lincoln Park to the Latino-majority East Side. The move exemplified a long-time pattern of discriminatory practices that run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act, residents alleged in their complaint to HUD.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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